When F.HERO first broke out in the Thai hip hop scene in the 2000s, the genre was steadily gaining steam outside the underground.
At the time, it has been around for about 15 years, since Mister Tang Mo (มิสเตอร์แตงโม) released “Moo Tang Thong” (Moo’s Golden Kick, หมูแข้งทอง) in 1985, which was widely credited as the first rap track in the Thai language.
HipHopDX Asia’s Artist of the Month for April first shared with us how it was upon hearing Joey Boy’s—who was considered the ‘godfather of Thai hip hop’—self-titled debut album in 1994 that he “started to focus on being a real rapper.”
Two decades later, F.HERO has played many roles during his momentous rap career: an MC, a producer, an entrepreneur, a label head, a mentor, and a storyteller. Below, he gave us a comprehensive oral history of Thai hip hop.
Let’s take it back from the beginning. Being a veteran like yourself who’s been active for over 20 years, can you tell us a bit about what the Thai hip hop scene looked like 20 years ago? What was it like then?
From 2000, 2001 to 2003, every club in Thailand began playing hip hop from America, which also happened to be the year when hip hop peaked in Thailand.
At the same time that Eminem and Dr. Dre were becoming more well-known [in Thailand], three important Thai hip hop groups began to form: Joey Boy’s Gancore Club [which also was the name of his label], Thaitanium, and Dajim’s N.Y.U [Club, his label].
Prior to that, these three groups dominated Thailand’s hip-hop scene and were responsible for its explosive growth. They did, however, establish labels in 2003 to pass on their legacy to the next generation. For example, Gancore Club was the beginning of Sing Nuer Suer Tai, of which I was also a member.
All three groups helped to popularize Thailand’s hip hop scene, and Thaitanium also spread [New York City]-style culture, such as making mixtapes, among other things. Because so many new groups were formed as a result of Thaitanium’s mixtape production, 2003 was a lot of fun. After moving to Bangkok, I met hip hop friends in the Gancore Club and the Thaitanium group all over the city.
Before, I always felt like I was rapping alone since not many people in my hometown understood it. And I can say that hip hop music’s development to the present day is credited to all three groups.
How would you describe the evolution of Thai hip hop over the last two decades? What were the biggest changes? What things have remained the same?
There were five important turning points.
One: The arrival of Suki (Bakery Music), who returned to Thailand and formed TKO [Technical Knock Out], which was then under KITA Music, the beginning of Joey Boy, [which] caused a splash in the Thai rap trend.
Two: Thaitanium’s return from New York City 20 years ago, everything took off after the release of the movie 8 Mile. Following that, Thaitanium helped spread the mixtape culture by encouraging underground rappers in Thailand to release mixtapes until a community was established where it gave them a place to be.
Three: The presence of ILLSLICK, who started the era of independent rappers posting music on YouTube. He posted his mixtape on YouTube, which gained a lot of views, demonstrating to everyone his intellectual ability around that time and making everyone want to take part in this.
Four: The rise of Rap Is Now [online platform], which occurs when everything is scattered after the community ends after the mixtape era.
For instance, acts like Joey Boy or Thaitanium are still popular, but many others did not adhere to the current trend. Rap Is Now has helped underground rappers and produced many new stars, including REPAZE and AUTTA, [allowing others to] demonstrate their talents and show up to display their abilities.
This caused many people’s opinions about rapping to change, with everyone began focusing more on skill and considering hip hop more as a sport and an awesome competition!
Rap Is Now became a community of new rappers and made everyone want to be a part of it. I still recall that particular day when Rap Is Now was presented at Fortune Tower and more than 2,000 people attended. For myself, who has been in this scene from the very beginning, this has truly amazed me, and I’m so happy that so many people enjoy listening to underground rap.
Five: The start of two well-known TV programs, The Rapper and Show Me The Money. When Rap Is Now first aired, rap music was only beginning to gain popularity in the underground. However, these two programs gave rap music a huge boost and helped it break into the mainstream.
Contestants in The Rapper demonstrated their skill by fusing a variety of musical genres into hip hop songs. The viewers of this program were also taught about rap music-related subjects. At that time, everyone was familiar with the terms rhyme and flow.
How would you describe Thai hip hop? What makes it different from American hip hop and hip hop from other Asian countries in terms of styles, as with rapping and production, lyrical themes, trends, and kinds of artists?
Thai rap has a pentatonic style, which is very unique. For example, ILLSLICK, who was the first to use pentatonic vocals in rap, hip hop, and R&B songs, as well as YOUNGOHM and SPRITE are a few examples of artists who use this style of singing and rapping, which undoubtedly sets it apart from rapping performed by people of other nationalities.
Lyrics-wise, we are different from other gangster rap artists because of our distinctive style. The message from the Thai side is very different from the American side. For example, their side might discuss shootings between rival gangs, as opposed to ours, which is the Thatthong Sound, or Temple Boy style, which has been infused with Thai culture and way of life.
We’ve noticed several popular rappers who have huge platforms but are independent, or at least not signed with any major label. What do you think or how do you describe the current business structure of hip hop in Thailand and why are these huge artists despite not being signed with major labels?
In my opinion, their YouTube channel monetization is fairly effective. And since TuneCore made the initial investment, its arrival is even more disruptive to the record label’s role.
It is critical to understand why rappers do not require a record label, as they are capable of caring for themselves and do not require someone to tell them what to do. The majority of them can succeed and make money on YouTube on their own. After that, they will be responsible for managing how they will use it.
YOUNGOHM is the most admirable individual because of his extreme discipline, intelligence, and planning abilities. He spends money wisely, which is highly irregular for kids these days. He can take care of himself because he knows exactly what he wants to do and has a unique style and continuous development. His productions have always astounded me.
A young person like him can put on his own big concert, which is truly admirable. With the things that YOUNGOHM can do on his own, he is also an idol for many Thai kids. He has recruited international artists to feature on his songs without the assistance of a label, which is very impressive. I believe that in the future, not only in hip-hop music but also in other music genres, the role of music labels will be disrupted.
Another person is SARAN, and although he’s not under any label, he has a very good artist management team, which is Kaew (Thaitanium), to make him succeed.
What are your thoughts on cultural appropriation? Some Asian rappers have been accused of appropriating Black American culture. What do you think about it?
In my opinion, there is nothing wrong or right. I believe that anyone can be whoever they want to be when it comes to art. Some people may be very into American culture and feel a strong connection to it, and doing something related to it does not seem wrong to me.
As Asians, we want to express our culture in the same way that VannDa does with his Cambodian culture and show it to the entire world, which has attracted people’s attention to Cambodia, which is rare. And I don’t blame people for wanting to express themselves because I believe that music has no bounds and that the phrase “One love under hip hop” is true.
Can you describe the current Thai hip hop scene?
Every day, new, fresh, and talented youngsters are discovered. But, in terms of significance, I believe it has now passed the point of notoriety. I haven’t seen anyone who stands out much since the beginning of YOUNGOHM, SARAN, MILLI, 1MILL, and AUTTA, and I believe these people are truly the most notable stars.
For non-Thai hip hop listeners, how can we best discover Thai hip hop artists? Which platforms (DSPs), media outlets, blogs, etc. should we check out?
It’s on Spotify playlists like “ฮิปฮอปของมันต้องฟัง” (HipHop-man-tong-fang), Apple Music playlist “The New Bangkok,” and Thai hip hop music recommendation page like HIP-HOP CULTURE TH.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Special thanks to High Cloud Entertainment for the translation.